When the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers collided on Dec. 3, 1990, the buildup was worthy of a Monday Night Football matchup involving two 10-1 teams that had combined to win three of the previous four Super Bowls.
Each roster was brimming with Pro Bowl talent, and respected coaches Bill Parcells and George Seifert were pulling the levers. Pundits correctly predicted the game would draw the largest audience in the history of Monday Night Football.
Further enhancing the storyline were years of steadily growing animosity between the teams. Notably, the Giants had routed San Francisco 49-3 in a divisional playoff game four years earlier, handing the 49ers their worst defeat in franchise history and sending a concussed Joe Montana to the hospital on a stretcher in the process.
Both teams also were still stewing about the end of the 1988 season. The Giants were upset about missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker when the 49ers lost to the Los Angeles Rams in the regular-season finale, and Giants quarterback Phil Simms angered the 49ers by telling a reporter who called him during the game, "I'm just sitting here watching the 49ers lay down like dogs."
Against that acrimonious backdrop, 49ers chaplain Pat Richie and Giants chaplain Dave Bratton arranged for the first joint postgame prayer in NFL history. They didn't know it at the time, but the act would become ingrained into the fiber of pro football over the ensuing 25 years.
The Giants and 49ers were cruising through the 1990 schedule. By the middle of November, both teams were 9-0, and anticipation was building for the Week 13 showdown at Candlestick Park.
A light bulb went on for Richie, who realized there was a unique opportunity for players to share their faith on an enormous stage.
"I wonder if there's something that we could do or should do, as far as a reflection of our faith," said the longtime 49ers chaplain, who now works as a corporate consultant in Houston. "What if we did something as simple as pray with the New York Giants?"
That's when Richie contacted Bratton, who had considered a similar idea after once noticing Eagles star defensive lineman Reggie White kneeling with a teammate on the sideline before a game. The Giants' chaplain also knew that one of his team's spiritual leaders, tight end Howard Cross, had participated in group prayers alongside opponents during his college career at Alabama.
Both teams improved to 10-0 before stumbling in Week 12 -- the Giants losing at Philadelphia and the 49ers falling at home to the Rams. Still, when the teams finally met, there was enormous interest in a heavyweight bout that would likely determine home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
The chaplains discussed ideas with players who attended team chapel, and a group prayer was agreed upon. It was a radical concept at the time.
"Back then, believe it or not, I think people forget that fraternization after games was really limited," said 49ers tight end Brent Jones, 52, who is now a partner in a Bay Area investment firm. "You'd maybe go quickly shake a guy's hand or say hello, but it really wasn't what it was today. So to kneel down and grab hands and pray with another team after the game was way out on the edge."
Now the question of when and where the prayer would take place needed to be decided. A postgame prayer might be problematic if tempers flared, but considering the alternative, it seemed to be a risk worth taking.
"Parcells would kill me if we did something like that before [the game], because he wanted no distractions," said Bratton, who is semiretired and lives in Florida.
Said Richie, "We made the decision, no matter who wins or loses, at the end of the game we'll meet and just take a knee at the 50-yard line and pray together. The purpose is to honor God and give thanks for the opportunity to play the game."
The game turned out to be a brutal affair, with each defense imposing its will.
The 49ers were held to 240 yards of offense, and the Giants managed just 221. Montana and Simms barely threw for 150 yards each, and neither completed 50 percent of his pass attempts. The game's leading rusher, Ottis Anderson, barely topped two yards per carry. Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver in history, caught one pass for 13 yards.
The 49ers outslugged the Giants 7-3 before a crowd of 66,092, a Candlestick Park record at the time. All the scoring occurred in the second quarter: A Matt Bahr field goal put the Giants in front 3-0, but a 23-yard touchdown pass from Montana to John Taylor would pull the 49ers ahead for good. The 10-point total was the lowest in the NFL all season.
Years later, many of the participants vividly remembered the game's intensity and hard hits. Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott, who finished the game with two sprained knees, compared the combatants to Roman gladiators.
Just as enduring are the memories of Lott clashing with Simms. In addition to the "dogs" comment, the star safety had been told before the game that Simms said Lott was washed up. Lott went face to face with Simms late in the game and again in another heated exchange afterward. The two apologized to each other after cooler heads prevailed, but in the moment the two had to be pulled apart, and Lott later said he felt like a raging Mike Tyson.
The scene nearly bubbled over into a full-scale brawl at midfield -- right where the group prayer was supposed to take place.
"You want to step in for your teammate," said 49ers offensive tackle Steve Wallace. "But it's like, 'You guys are trying to fight, and we're trying to pray. What is going on?' It was kind of chaos and confusion at the same time."
Despite the anarchy, players said they were determined to follow through on their plans to pray.
"It was something we decided we were gonna do, regardless of what happened," said 49ers guard Guy McIntyre, 54, who now serves as the team's director of alumni relations. "[The scuffle was] just a sidebar from the intensity of football when guys go into that competitive mode. People can get excited, and sometimes it does linger after the game, but that wasn't gonna keep us from doing what we were gonna do."
San Francisco players Wallace, McIntyre, Jones, Bubba Paris, Dave Waymer and Ron Lewis moved about 15 yards away from the scrum -- toward the end zone where Dwight Clark reeled in "The Catch" in 1982, as Richie remembers it -- huddled up, took a knee and began to pray.
"We looked around for the Giants guys and didn't see them, and we thought, 'Well, let's go ahead and do this on our own,'" Jones said. "And right when we started to pray, a couple of the Giants came running in."
Cross and Giants defensive back Reyna Thompson joined the circle, and the wheels were set in motion for a faith-based tradition that ultimately became prevalent around the NFL. But the only known photo of the moment was snapped right before Cross and Thompson joined the six 49ers players.
"I wish we had the photo from literally 10 seconds later," Jones said.
The game drew an estimated 41.6 million viewers -- an MNF record that still stands. The postgame fracas stole the show afterward, however, and ABC's cameras didn't capture the prayer circle.
The Giants and 49ers continued to pray on the field after games for the remainder of the 1990 season, often joined by opposing players. The teams faced off again on Jan. 20, 1991, at Candlestick Park with NFC championship at stake, and the Giants came out on top to thwart a potential 49ers three-peat. Despite losing 15-13 on a last-second field goal, several 49ers joined Giants players in prayer afterward.
Prior to Super Bowl XXV, Bratton arranged for the Giants to hold a postgame prayer with the Buffalo Bills, a team with a sizable chapel group. It was a time of national uncertainty with the onset of war in the Persian Gulf, and the game became an emotional landmark in American sports history. The level of security at Tampa Stadium was unprecedented, with a military presence in place to further ensure safety, and Whitney Houston delivered an impassioned version of the national anthem.
In the game itself, the Giants memorably outlasted the Bills 20-19 when Scott Norwood's 47-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide right on the penultimate play. Immediately afterward, several players from both sides -- some swept up in euphoria, others stunned by disappointment -- tuned out the noise to kneel on the field in prayer. Some observers applauded the gesture, but there also was a palpable backlash from others who accused players of trying to impose their beliefs on fans.
"We weren't trying to witness anyone," said Cross, 48, who now works in commercial real estate and covers the Giants on TV and radio. "We were just kneeling. ... A simple act of kneeling is not aggressive. You're surrendering at that moment. The biggest thing for me was that there are so many eyes watching us, that if we knelt and prayed, that at one moment someone would say, 'Wow, they're human. They need help. They believe in something bigger than them.'"
Just as the act of postgame prayer was picking up steam, it became caught in the crossfire of a larger debate.
At the March 1991 owners meetings in Hawaii, the league decided to curtail on-field celebration and taunting. At the same time, it opted to reinforce a 1981 rule prohibiting fraternization between teams. No more postgame hugs between friends on opposite teams. No more handshakes between head coaches. Violators would face financial penalties, and many in the media decried the NFL as the "No Fun League."
An NFL spokesman said players could pray, "as long as they do it in a somewhat prompt and private fashion," but the league's intent was unclear. Many players expected to be slapped with steep fines if they continued to pray alongside opponents, and some were convinced the league's brass wanted to stamp out the practice entirely.
"It's the stupidest rule that's ever been implemented," White said during training camp in 1991. "And I think one of the reasons is that they don't want us to pray. And I know we're going to get fined, but we're going to pray anyway."
On the eve of the regular season, Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary said commissioner Paul Tagliabue told him that the fraternization rule was unrelated to prayer. That message, however, failed to trickle down to the masses.
Richie said he didn't encounter any problems with the 49ers organization, but Bratton said he heard he would be dismissed if the Giants continued to pray. Both chaplains encouraged the continuation of postgame prayer, but they stressed that players needed to make their own decisions on whether to risk discipline from the league.
With all that in play, the NFL schedule makers sent the 49ers to the Meadowlands to play the Giants in the first Monday night game of the 1991 season. The champions were in their first game under coach Ray Handley, who succeeded the retired Parcells, but the result was almost identical -- they beat the 49ers 16-14 on a late field goal.
Wallace, 50, now a real estate investor and motivational speaker in Atlanta, recalls the aftermath as clearly as the game.
"Out of the corner of my eye, I see some of the Giants over there rallying around at midfield in order to pray," he said. "I remember going over to one of my teammates, and he was like, 'I had a bad game. I'm not feeling it tonight.' Then one of the other guys was just like, 'Dude, I'm not feeling it, either.'"
Cross, Thompson and three other Giants -- tight end Zeke Mowatt, offensive lineman William Roberts and defensive lineman John Washington -- were waiting at the midfield Meadowlands logo for their 49ers brethren to join them.
"I've gotta find somebody that's gonna go over here with me, because I can't be the only guy from the 49ers to get that huge fine," Wallace said. "I peeked over at the Giants, and all those guys are sitting there staring over at me. I tried to act like I didn't see them. I started to walk toward the 49ers locker room ... [but] I had made an oath to myself, an oath to God that I would stand up. So I went out there, and the moment I kneeled, I didn't feel any more pressure."
This time ABC's cameras spotted the gathering, and the broadcast crew pointed it out.
Dan Dierdorf: "By the way, gentlemen, that little grouping we're getting there at midfield, this was supposed to be taboo this year. A prayer."
Frank Gifford: "I'd hate to be the guy to say that's taboo."
Dierdorf (in agreement): "Really, really."
Richie told 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren on the flight back to California that Wallace had joined the Giants in prayer. Holmgren, who served as a liaison of sorts between the chapel and the team at large, joked to Richie, "If I get fired, you're getting fired too."
The next day, a team staffer told Wallace that owner Eddie DeBartolo and president Carmen Policy wanted to speak to him privately.
"At this point we're in meeting rooms, and my heart just starts pounding," Wallace said. "When they say Carmen Policy and Mr. DeBartolo want to talk to you, my heart just started beating so intensely."
After Wallace was left to fret for a moment, teammates began howling in laughter. Jones admitted he planned the prank and put the staffer up to it. Wallace can laugh now, but he was fuming at the time.
"You're talking about a big guy running after some guys trying to kill 'em," Wallace said. "That could have been my career. That could have been a huge fine. And they're sitting out there kidding with me, playing a joke. I just want to hit somebody, because I'm pretty mad about the whole incident."
Ultimately, there was neither a fine nor an edict to stop postgame praying from the league office.
Before long, following the leads of the 49ers, Giants and Bills, players from across the league took up the practice of praying in unison after games. The custom mushroomed over the years to the point where it now is an established routine in the NFL, college football and other sports.
"It's one of the greatest things I've ever done," Wallace said. "I didn't have a clue at that time [the impact it would make]. I was nervous about doing it, and to be honest, slightly apprehensive about doing it. I just said, 'I'm going to take a stand,' and I'm glad I did."